Blues icon Joe Louis Walker dishes on the Grateful Dead, Sly Stone and more, ahead of playing in Delaware
Joe Louis Walker’s love for the blues has taken him on a journey that’s less traveled in his field.
His milestones include performing for multiple U.S. presidents, being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and recording two dozen musical projects, the latest being “Everybody Wants a Piece” (2015).
At 68, the iconic bluesman Walker is still going strong on his musical journey, forging ahead with no sign of slowing down. He’ll return to the First State Oct. 19, headlining at Jonathan’s Landing Golf Course in Magnolia.
You’ve had so many highlights in your career. But what was your last disappointment?
I joined the Thelonious Monk Institute, where we foster an understanding of different cultures and races through music. And we perform all over the world. April 30 is the International Day of Jazz/Blues. A whole bunch of musicians donate their time to that.
My wife was always on me saying, “You’ve played for all these presidents, but when are you going to play for President Obama?”
No sooner than she said that, I got a call the next week. I think it was last year. I got a call asking, “Would you perform with Buddy Guy for President Obama?” I said, “Yeah,” but as it turns out I couldn’t do it, because of something else.
And I really wanted to do it because my wife was like, “I really want to meet Michelle Obama!”
Michelle was the one spearheading this whole function. But I couldn’t make it. That was a little bit of a disappointment, because I wanted both my grandsons to see the first African American president. Yet that wasn’t meant to be. But it worked out, because President Obama was playing my album, “Hornet’s Nest,” on his plane.
What was your job before you became a full-time bluesman?
I joined the union when I was 14 years old. I left home when I was 16, so I’ve been a musician my whole life.
When did you realize it was possible have a career in music?
To be quite honest, I didn’t think it out as a career. It was a thing where I was checking instruments out at school. I went from that to the Fillmore District in San Francisco. When I was 12, I started messing around with instruments. All my cousins lived in the Fillmore District and they had a band. I just gravitated toward that and my mother and father liked it because it kept me out of trouble, gangs and what have you. So that’s what I wanted to do. I saved my money up and joined the union with my cousins. We played quite a bit.
During the late 1970s to 1980s, you got burnt out and switched to joining the gospel group Spiritual Corinthians. How did that help you as a blues musician?
I think it helped it me as a person. I tend to sort of tell people when I’m interviewed and asked, “How did that happen? How did that affect your blues?”
I tell everybody if you take B.B. King and put him in a room with Hank Williams and George Benson - nobody will walk in the room and say, “Hey, I’m B.B. King - I’m the blues guitar player; or I’m Keith Richards, I’m the rock guitar player.” They just walk in the room and say, “I’m a guitar player.”
What happens is when you learn to be a musician, you may be pigeonholed as one style. But a lot of people don’t know B.B. King could play straight-up bebop like George Benson. But he didn’t do that because the audience came to hear him play the style that he played. A lot of people don’t know that George Benson played blues like B.B. King. But if you get him in the room and close your eyes, you’d be confused about who’s playing what.
That’s an interesting point.
I wanted to be a musician and be able to express myself on my instruments, so I played all kinds of stuff. I played gospel music before I was in the Corinthians. I played a lot of soul music. I come from the same neighborhood as Sly Stone, Freddie Stone and Tower of Power. I come from the same neighborhood as the Grateful Dead. They lived right around the corner and I jammed with all of them.
When we all played together, nobody said, “I’m Jerry Garcia, jam-band guitar player,” because there wasn’t a such thing as “jam band.” But when people became known for a certain thing, there had to be a category for it. [For example], Sly Stone became funk.